THE PROBLEM WITH LITERALISM WHEN IT COMES TO TRANSLATION

There is a new book out on the market comparing and contrasting four popular recent translations Evangelicals tend to use— the NIV, the NLT, the ESV, and the HCSB. The book is entitled Which Bible Translation Should I Use? A Comparison of Four Recent Versions, and its introducers and editors are Andrew Kostenberger and David Croteau (B+H, 2012, 204 actual pages). Each of the four versions are essentially presented or defended by four individuals who were involved in the translation work themselves— ESV (Wayne Grudem), NIV (Doug Moo), HCSB (Ray Clendenen), and NLT (Philip Comfort). In this particular post I want to address only one issue, that of literalism.

Let it be noted first that none of these four translations really deserve to be called ‘literal’ translations in the strict sense. They are not. They do not follow, for example the word order of the Hebrew or Greek sentences again and again and again for the sake of making good sense in English. In other words, comprehension trumps literalism. Sometimes you will hear one or another of the defenders of the ESV or HCSB or the NKJV claim that their translation is ‘essentially literal’ but not ‘woodenly literal’ (with the latter meaning following word for word the word order in the original language).

But in fact, to the degree that a translation like the ESV is dependent upon or even a return to more nearly following the verbage of the KJV, it is not even ‘essentially literal’ (and this critique would apply to the NKJV even more). Why not? Because the King James was not a literal translation in the first place! To the contrary, it incorporates numerous of the wonderful idiomatic expressions that William Tyndale used to translate the original languages— expressions like ‘the skin of one’s teeth’ or the like.

The KJV was never intended to be an entirely from scratch translation in any case, for Lancelot Andrewes and his team were quite specifically told to follow a couple of important previous English versions, and they did so, relying heavily on Tyndale who was really good at coining idiomatic phrases. This is a story for another day, and it is ably told by Alistair McGrath in his wonderful book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible (2002) which I reviewed a long while back on this blog when it was at Beliefnet. McGrath’s book should be required reading for all KJV and NKJV and also ESV advocates.

One of the things Wayne Grudem regularly complains about when it comes to the NIV and other translations is that they try to be a bit more gender inclusive or gender neutral in their rendering of the text at various points, and so we are losing male words and male pronouns, when those words can perfectly well be used in inclusive senses when the audience involves both males and females.

For example, in his discussion of the term adelphos in the Bible Translation book he stresses that the singular form of the word always and everywhere in the NT and LXX (some 428 times) refers to a male, where as the plural can refer to a mixed audience of men and women.

The problem with this conclusion is that there are other words, which are used in the singular, which are masculine gender words which in fact refer to a woman! For example, take the reference to Phoebe in Romans 16.1 who is called both ‘our sister’ (adelphen) and a deacon (diakonov). Not a female form of the word deacon, but rather the male form. So, apparently Paul does not have a problem with using a masculine noun in the singular of a woman any more than he has a problem with using a plural masculine noun like ‘brothers’ of both ‘brothers and sisters’.

Now, if the goal is pure literalism, then Phoebe should be called a ‘deacon’ however odd that may roll off the tongue of some. But there is in fact a problem with literalism especially when it comes to language being used in spiritual or figurative senses in the first place by which I mean the use of the terms ‘brothers and sisters’ of Christians not to refer to physical kinship, but rather Christian kinship in the family of faith.

Let’s return for the moment to the discussion of why some translators go for ‘essential literalism’ rather than ‘wooden literalism’. The answer is surely comprehension. And it is for that very same reason that an ‘essentially literal’ translation is often not to be preferred when it comes to the use of exclusively or almost exclusively male nouns and pronouns. Why not? Because it may it fact make comprehension less likely in today’s world! When the audience of an address is both men and women, as made clear or highly probable from the context, the translation ‘men’ or just ‘brothers’ does a disservice to a significant portion of the audience, namely the women. For the sake of comprehension and clarity and even gender distinction, the translation ‘brothers and sisters’ is far better and more accurate and true to the context than just ‘brothers’ or ‘men’.

Let me illustrate by referring you to a book I am currently working on a review of by Paul Trebilco entitled Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament, (Cambridge, 2012). In his chapter on “Brothers and Sisters’ (pp. 16-66) Trebilco points out the following: 1) overwhelmingly in the NT, the term brothers is used metaphorically or figurative to refer to Christians who are considered members of the family of faith (following Jesus’ definition of family in a text like Mk. 3.31-35 and par.) This is the case an amazing 271 times in the NT and in all of its books except Titus and Jude.

In other words, only in a minority of cases is the term ‘brothers’ used in a strictly original literal sense to refer to physical kin! 2) more often than not in the Pauline corpus, the term ‘brothers’ is used inclusively to refer to both Christian men and women as is made clear by the immediate context. Take for example Phil. 4.1-2— Paul urges the adelphoi to get along, and then he singles out two women leaders, two co-workers as specific examples of such adelphoi who need to get along. I will let you examine the evidence in pp. 24ff. but suffice it to say that it is easy to show that in Paul and in Acts such metaphorical language is used inclusively. See for example 2 Tim. 4.21 where Paul sends greetings from the ‘brothers’ and one of them is said to be Claudia! But of course, she’s a sister, just like Phoebe, and in our context it’s not appropriate to call a sister ‘a brother’.

One of the things I find most strange about the arguments of folks like Wayne Grudem is of course they are complimentarians, not egalitarians, which is to say they want to specifically stress the differences between men and women and not talk in ways that suggest gender neutrality, or the like. And yet, in translations they want to talk as if all persons being addressed are males even when the context indicates gender inclusivity! This is very odd for someone who is a big advocate for preserving, respecting, and honoring the essential gender differences between men and women and honoring Biblical womanhood.

You would think we would have more places translating adelphoi as ‘men and women’ where the context indicates it, not less. In other words, the insistence on a literal translation not only does not promote better comprehension of who is involved in such a verse as 2 Tim. 4.21, it also fails to promote the desire to preserve and honor gender distinctions as well when both men and women are clearly involved in a text. Strange.

The question is— In a Biblically illiterate age and in a culture which is far less patriarchal than Biblical culture, is it more or less helpful towards the goal of comprehensive to translate verses where men and women are both involved with gender exclusive language or gender inclusive language? Which is more likely to promote understanding of the actual meaning and reference of the text? Here the answer seems clear, especially when metaphorical or figurative language is being used anyway!

And let me point to another oddity about this. Take an example like Paul’s quotation of 2 Sam. 7.14 in 2 Cor. 6.18. Here Paul is in all likelihood following the LXX. What is extremely interesting is the LXX only has the singular term ‘sons’ at this juncture, but Paul adds ‘and daughters’ to make clear the inclusive reference that seemed apparent to him from the context of 2 Sam. 7.14. Here then, we have Paul himself providing a precedent for using a clarifying more gender inclusive phrase even when the original text has only ‘sons’!!

The real question is whether the decision in the ESV to go back to using more male pronouns and nouns, even in some places where gender inclusivity seems obvious from the context has more to do with an attempt to repristinize patriarchy than an attempt to be faithfully ‘literal’ and so ‘more like the KJV’. I’m afraid that the former really is often the agenda when it comes to the ESV. And I find this both unhelpful and profoundly sad.

Contra Grudem, it is simply incorrect to say “you never use a masculine singular noun to mean a ‘male or female person’” (p. 60 of the Bible Translation book). Really? Actually, sometimes the writers of the NT do. In a highly patriarchal culture like the writers of the NT lived in, it is not at all a surprise that masculine language dominates even when it comes to figurative language applied to the Christian community. The surprise is, that there is evidence of other sorts of uses at all! And there is a reason for these ‘other sorts of uses’.

Both Jesus and Paul were in fact all about more gender inclusivity when it came to discipleship, and roles within their communities. Paul was pretty clear that in Christ ‘there is no male and female’ for all are one (Gal. 3.28) and he believed such a pronouncement had social implications about roles and functions. That’s why in Romans 16 we not only hear about a woman ‘deacon’ we even likely hear about a woman apostle named Junia (Rom. 16.7) who was a fellow Jewish Christian and co-worker with Paul along with her husband Andronicus (see Eldon Epp’s book entitled Junia). But that is a conversation for another day.

  • James Dowden

    It is weird how ESV fans often go off on one criticizing gender-inclusive language, when the ESV does in fact use gender-inclusive language (for instance, it frequently uses “anyone” or “whoever” for the KJV’s “any man”). There is an argument to be made that the ESV does quite a good job of striking the balance between removing egregious examples of pointlessly gendered phrases and avoiding syntactical contortions and silly taboos about the word “man” and words for male relations. And whatever one thinks of the precise place in which the guidelines underlying their translation choices have sought to strike this balance, methodologically it is preferable to allowing one’s translation committee to become a passenger on an ideological runaway train in either direction. But I suppose subtleties like that don’t speak to the feeling of discomfort and disappointment that surrounded the NRSV’s unhappier moments. And it is of course easier to obsess about emotive issues where one feels that one has the majority of Evangelicals on one’s side than to nitpick about the NIV’s unfortunate tendency to harmonize passages with one another, which has an unfortunate way of creating outraged screams about inerrancy.

  • Chris

    My ESV uses footnotes–a ton of them–for when “brothers” is used with the the footnote saying “brothers and sisters.” I thought that to be odd. Why not just add “and sisters” into the main body of the text? Oh well, at least I’m reminded every time I read the footnote.

  • Jesse

    Hi Ben, just a correction–this book is published by B&H.

  • PLTK

    My eight year old: “Why does God love boys more than girls.” Me: I explain gendered language and tradition where “men” used to mean both. Eight year old “Well, I don’t like that! If it means boys and girls, why don’t they just write boys and girls? It just makes it seem God doesn’t like girls very much.”

  • Esteban Bowers

    I am afraid to say and sad that you nailed it with the phrase “repristinize patriarchy”. Thanks for the excellent blog entry!

  • Steve Scarborough

    Dr. W: This is an excellent and well written discussion. Thanks for sharing!

  • Lois Tverberg

    Just curious about the “skin of one’s teeth.” Can you give more details about what Tyndale did in translating this in the KJV?

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Lois: See the book by Alistair McGrath on the KJV. Ben W.

  • stig77

    As to the overall point, I’m completely with you here, but have a couple of questions:

    (1) With diakonos used for Phoebe: This is an honest question that betrays my ignorance (potentially). Is there a feminine word used in the NT for a female diakonos? If so, then the choice of a masculine noun is important. If not, perhaps Paul was constrained by lexical choice. It’s hard for me to believe there isn’t a feminine form of the word, which is why I ask.

    (2) To be fair to Grudem, with whom I also disagree, are you arguing against him? Your quote, “For example, in his discussion of the term adelphos in the Bible Translation book he stresses that the singular form of the word always and everywhere in the NT (some 428 times) refers to a male, where as the plural can refer to a mixed audience of men and women.” [As an aside, where does this 428 come from? Both Accordance and Bibleworks show 121 singular occurences of adelphos in the NT. Am I doing something incorrectly]

    The key to me here is that he argues that the singular form is gender exclusive and the plural can be inclusive. Your later examples of the inclusive nature of the noun are all plural, which is exactly what he accepts as possible, correct? I would then suppose that you and Grudem agree on this point: The plural form of adelphos can be inclusive. (Maybe you aren’t giving us the whole of Grudem’s argument.)

    Why not point to places where the singular form of adelphos is not gender exclusive? In this way you are actually arguing against what Grudem claims. A great example (and clear in my mind) is Matthew 5:22-24. Surely, the “brother” with whom you are not to be angry, to whom you are not to say “raka,” and with whom you are to be reconciled before making a sacrifice includes the “sister.” Surely this is the case, right?

    By arguing from the plural instances of adelphos, you cannot say, “Contra Grudem, it is simply incorrect to say ‘you never use a masculine singular noun to mean a “male or female person” ‘ (p. 60 of the Bible Translation book).” You are right in the “contra,” but you don’t argue from singulars! You argue from plurals!

    I do think your overall point is correct, just argued poorly. With all due respect, of course! ;)

  • Ben Witherington

    This sort of rejoinder is what comes of not reading Grudem in context in the first place. Go do that and then come back to me. BW3

  • stig77

    Fair enough, but, for what it’s worth I would reply that my rejoinder comes from reading your framing of Grudem’s argument. Are my comments about the logic of your argument incorrect? I’m happy to be corrected, if they are.

    For what it’s worth, as I mentioned in the post, I’m sure there’s more to Grudem’s argument. Again, I agree with your overall point and I completely agree that I need to read Grudem in context, which I plan to do. But I don’t think you slammed the door on Grudem. I think you could have, though. This is especially important because, unfortunately, not everyone is going to read Grudem in context.

  • Ben Witherington

    Stig…. you did frame things a bit wrongly. If you find examples like diakonos in the singular predicated of women…. you’ve proved the point that he is wrong that Greek nouns in the masculine singular are not predicated of women. So my argument wasn’t just about the plurals. See Trebilco’s book.. BW3

  • David

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Literalism, particularly in the translation of individual words and phrases, has always seemed like a way to lose sight of the forest for a few trees. Instead of trumpeting the message of God’s redemptive love, we have folks fighting over the denotative and connotative meaning of Hebrew and Greek words. It is arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin rather than listening to the glorious music from the heavenly chorus.

    I love the discussion of gender inclusivity and the phrase “repristinize patriarchy” should be trademarked. It cuts to the chase.

  • David Dollins

    The following is a post I wrote on Paul Cain’s web page a few months ago. He is affiliated with the Luthern movement and has spent a great deal of time bashing the NIV 2011 (I assume because his printing agency has now moved to the ESV as the ‘Luthern text). Anyway, I finally had enough. In his response, he never really engaged me on the translation issues but just pointed me to another NIV-bashing website. To me, that said it all. Here is what I wrote:

    “I speak as a Bible Teacher and a born again Christian. I must say I believe your wholesale bashing of the NIV 2011 is way over the top, especially coming from a person of leadership. It grieves me. It would be easy to turn the table on the ESV regarding their ‘forced’ translation in various texts as it relates to women (I am a complimentarian). First, the ESV translators mistranslated Romans 16:1 when the Greek word for ‘servant’ is diakonos. Yep, the same word that is called Deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8,12. That means Phoebe, a female, was a Deacon in the early church. Second, in 1 Timothy 3:11, the ESV translators again mistranslated a verse. The ESV says ‘their wives’, implying that Deacons were all male and it then referred to their wives. The NIV 2011, as well as the literal NASB, translate this word correctly. Its the Greek word for ‘women’. It should say…”Likewise women should”…This leaves open that even here it could have been talking about women being Deacons. At least the NIV took the correct middle-ground instead of forcing a translation on the text, the very thing they accuse the NIV 2011 of doing. Finally, the ESV mistranslated Romans 16:7. Now that everyone realizes that Junia was a female, the ESV forced a translation on the text that is just plain foreign to the text, saying that Andronicus and Junia were ‘well known TO the apostles’ as opposed to a correct translation of well known AMONG the apostles which would have left open the possibility, either way, and correctly so. The ESV translators solved it for everyone…yes, they interpreted. It is the ESV translation that has become agenda-driven. Females are subordinate and have their place, just not in any leadership role. Is the NIV 2011 perfect? Of course not. But to simply ‘go off’ on your web page is inadvisable, not to mention misleading people about the translations. I like the ESV and the NIV 2011 both, but for different reasons. But the tact you have taken? I just don’t think I would have gone there. I hope you are able to explain and justify to all the Lutheran women the above passages. Absolutely incredible.”

    Since then I have only strengthened my position that the NIV is the very best, in both accuracy and readability. I now commend it highly to the congregation I teach here in Paducah, KY.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X